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In 2008, thousands of Obama campaign volunteers got fired up about electoral politics in a way they hadn’t been before. Four years later, some are now running for office themselves. But few have made a bigger splash in local Democratic circles than 61-year-old Torie Osborn, a nationally-known advocate for gay and lesbian rights and other progressive causes. Her insurgent campaign for a California Assembly seat has roiled the waters of Los Angeles-area liberalism and bucked the legislative leadership in Sacramento, which is circling the wagons around her main opponent.
If Santa Monica-based Osborn beats Assemblywoman Betsy Butler in the newly-created 50th Assembly district—either on June 5 or in a November general election run-off—her victory over the party establishment will be a Left Coast monument to what might have been possible, in more places, if Obama’s campaign organization (or the Democratic Party) had been serious about grassroots movement building. “There could have been 100, or even 1,000 Torie Osborns, who came out of the network of energized people trying to change American politics in 2008,” says California political consultant Paul Kumar, an admirer of Osborn’s “extraordinary campaign organization” which has hosted more than 80 house parties.
Given Osborn’s strong resume as a community organizer, non-profit group leader, and influential advisor to several Los Angeles mayors, it’s a surprise to some that her first bid for public office wasn’t welcomed by Assembly Speaker John Pérez and other Democratic legislators. After all, the current crop of salons in Sacramento is not
highly regarded by the public and could use a little new blood.
As ex-state legislator Tom Hayden noted in The Nation this month,” voter approval of the Democratic-controlled legislature slinks along between nine and twenty percent…Despite majorities in both houses and control of all statewide offices, the Democratic Party seems chronically unable to deliver the minimum that voters want from their government: results. College tuitions keep rising, and college doors keep closing. School funding keeps declining. Wetlands and redwoods keep disappearing. Billions spent on mass transit do not reduce congestion and air pollution. To a disillusioned majority, all the Sacramento fights appear to be about slowing the rate of California’s decline.”
A Movement History
Osborn got her won start in politics as a college student in New England. She was a late-Sixties’ campaigner against the Vietnam War, an activist in the women’s movement, and an early leader of the socialist New American Movement. In the mid-1970s, she became a founding staff member of In These Times, the left-wing monthly in Chicago. In the 1980s and 90s, she played leadership roles in the National Organization for Women, a pioneering Los Angeles clinic for HIV/AIDS sufferers, and the national Gay and Lesbian Task Force that mobilized hundreds of thousands of civil rights marchers in Washington in 1993.
In Los Angeles, she directed the Liberty Hill Foundation and served as a United Way official; in both positions, she helped channel millions of dollars from well-heeled Hollywooders into minority neighborhood projects dealing with gang violence, low-income housing, and environmental hazards. Her latest political work has been training young organizers, promoting voter registration, and helping California Calls build a community-labor coalition capable of ending “loopholes for giant corporate property owners and the requirement of a two-thirds supermajority vote by legislators to increase taxes.”
Like many Democratic Party activists, San Francisco lawyer and Beyond Chron blogger Paul Hogarth had hopes that last year’s redistricting would give California Democrats “an historic opportunity to pick up seats in November— and win a two-thirds majority that would make Republicans irrelevant.” Instead, according to Hogarth, “Speaker Pérez has diverted resources from competitive ‘swing districts’ and is instead meddling in Democratic primary fights in deep-blue seats” so he can “consolidate control at the expense of everything else.” The likelihood of the Democrats gaining the necessary two additional seats in both houses of the legislature has decreased, as a result.
any re-match with the Republican she beat last time (leaving that job this year to a weaker and now under-funded Democrat).
Safe Seat Shopping in Beverly Hills
The Butler vs. Osborn contest is a fine example of both meddling and resource diversion, on behalf of a loyal Perez follower. First elected to the assembly in 2010, Butler is an ex-fundraiser for associations of trial lawyers and environmentalists. She won office by defeating a Tea Party Republican in the South Bay communities of Torrance, Redondo Beach, Marina Del Rey and El Segundo. However, redistricting left her with an electorate composed of additional conservative voters (even though the Democrats still have a slight numerical edge among those registered overall). She decided to duck out on a rematch with the GOP candidate she beat last time–leaving that job to a weaker, less well-known, and now under-funded Democrat. With full backing from Perez (and 35 other Democratic legislators), Butler abandoned her constituents (and her longtime home in Marina del Ray). From her new address in Beverly Hills, she announced a campaign for “re-election” in the re-jiggered 50th district that includes just 1.7 percent of the voters she now represents.”
Despite Osborn’s previously announced candidacy and active support from a dozen local Democratic clubs, Pérez began twisting arms to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars for Butler from statewide labor and environmental PACs. Using appointed delegates, he engineered state party convention backing for Butler in February. Since last year, Pérez and other legislators have personally donated more to their carpet-bagging colleague (about $88,000) than to any other Democratic candidate for the assembly. Among the commercial interests flocking to Butler’s banner is the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, a landlords’ group that opposes rent control in West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and other communities that still have it.
Meanwhile, back in the South Bay, the campaign of Butler’s would-be Democratic successor, Torrance School Board member Al Muratsuchi, has been largely ignored by Butler donors in the state legislature. Legislative staffers from Sacramento, who could be aiding Muratsuchi against two GOP primary foes, will instead be working the phones, at Pérez’s direction, as GOTV “volunteers” for Butler. Says Osborn supporter and LA City Council staffer Mike Bonin: “Butler is running to represent Sacramento in the 50th district, while Torie is running to represent this district in Sacramento.” Bonin contrasts Osborn’s enthusiastic young West LA supporters with the Butler draftees from elsewhere that he calls “voluntoids.”
Claiming the Crown of Incumbency
Under California’s new “jungle primary” system, Democrats, Republicans, and independents run against each other in the same preliminary field; the top two finishers go on to a general election re-match in November. In a safe liberal district like the new 50th, that means that the competing Democratic campaigns of Osborn and Butler (or of a third possible top-tier finisher, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom) will continue to consume financial resources that could have been used to unseat Republicans elsewhere. The several million dollars raised, in total, by Osborn, Butler, or groups supporting them will morph into even greater spending during the five-months of general election campaigning within the same electorate of 300,000 that begins after June 5. (Osborn’s money at least comes from 2,200 individual contributors, many of whom gave under $100.)
Among those backing Osborn are members of Communications Workers of America Local 9003, headed by T Santora. He reports that CWA’s Southern California Council broke with the California and Los Angeles labor federations to endorse the “more home-grown” candidate—after interviewing both and taking into account Butler’s pro-labor voting record. “Betsy’s a nice lady,” Santora says. “But her claiming the crown as the incumbent didn’t work with our members—it just rubbed people the wrong way. If Betsy wasn’t in the legislature, nobody would know who she was. And, since she’s been there, she’s never reached out to us.”
In contrast, past legislators from the area had strong local ties to labor, tenants, consumers, environmentalists, and healthcare reformers. Santa Monica and its environs was the political base for Hayden’s post-New Left reincarnation as a California assemblyman and, later, senator. When he was term-limited out of office, Hayden passed the torch to public interest lawyer Sheila Kuehl, who became California’s most effective legislative campaigner for single-payer health care. Both Hayden and Kuehl (Osborn’s former partner) encouraged Osborn’s run this year. According to Kuehl, “Torie absolutely fits this district. She’s been a leader of one of the most successful civil rights movements of our time. Then she made the transition from LBGT campaigning to working on issues related to poverty, homelessness, and income inequality well ahead of Occupy.”
Nevertheless, as Hayden noted in The Nation, “Perez’s powers are many and little known to the apathetic public, which is why Butler may have a chance. These powers include demanding big money from contributors who need his favor, influencing members of his caucus to support his candidate preferences and pressuring progressive groups like labor and environmentalists whose crucial legislative proposals often depend on his nod.”
According to Hayden, who spent eighteen years in the legislature, when “scores of legislative staff, willingly or not, hit the phones after-hours, pound on voters’ doors and flood a local district with fliers proclaiming that the Speaker’s candidates are the ‘Democratic choice’ (or the ‘environmental choice,’ or the ‘firefighters choice,’ or ‘lesbian choice,’ etc)…. the majority of Democratic voters are deeply influenced by these endorsements.”
Let’s hope that, in the June 5 primary (and in November as well), 50th Assembly district voters will be more discerning about the choices before them. Because next January, they can be represented by someone who’s already part of a cozy (if dysfunctional) incumbent protection club in Sacramento. Or they can send a Democratic Party crasher to the state capital who will be a voice, not an echo, in the halls of government.
STEVE EARLY is a former national staff member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) who has been active in labor causes since 1972. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2010).